When I was 17 years old, I used to work at my mother’s dry cleaning business located in what was then the troublesome Plaza-Midwood area. On this particular Saturday evening, after closing my mother’s shop, I asked my best friend to pick me up so that we could attend a typical high school “let’s hang out in the Wal-Mart parking lot” extravaganza. I recall my friend being tired, so he asked me to drive his highly decorated Honda Accord which in high school was a rarity. His car and window tint were black, rims were shiny, and the engine was V-6, which we all know was top of the line back in the 90s.
While driving the car on Central Avenue near Saigon Square, a cop car pulled up behind me. He flashed his blue lights and turned on those dreadful sirens that we see so often on an episode of Cops. I remember thinking to myself, “I wasn’t speeding was I? Why’d he pull me over?” When I finally pulled to a stop, I noticed the officer didn’t step out of his car. In fact, we sat there waiting … for at least five minutes. My best friend looked over at me and said, “should we get out?” I turned back to him and said “Are you crazy! Let’s just put our hands in the air so they don’t shoot.” I know I know…so naïve! As we sat in the car with our hands in the air, four additional cop cars pulled up. Then over the loud speaker, the officer says, “Get out of the car with your hands in the air!” When we got out, both my friend and I tasted pavement for the first time ever and were put in handcuffs.
On that particular day, the police officers were dispatched to find a Black Honda Accord that was stolen in the area by two Asian males. Unluckily, we happened to fit the description. The entire ordeal happened so fast. Not knowing what our recourse was, I remember feeling violated and embarrassed for being accused of something without an adequate explanation. Kids around the nation face similar interactions with law enforcement. The Mississippi Gulf Coast is no exception.
My specific project this past week at the Mississippi Center for Justice was to prepare a presentation to educate middle and high school students on their basic rights, specifically when dealing with law enforcement. Along with my fellow classmate, Robert Ingalls and two University of Chicago Law Students, our group was asked to prepare a video presentation that would later be posted on YouTube so that youth around the country would be able to learn about their basic rights free of charge.
Throughout the week, we met with many people who shared their own stories of police harassment in the area. It was interesting to hear these stories and understand why many people in the Mississippi Gulf Coast had a negative perception of law enforcement. In previous weeks, the Mississippi Center for Justice asked other law schools to prepare presentations to address the concerns of citizens and equip them with an educational foundation of their basic rights.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, our group also had an opportunity to speak with Administrative and Court officials on their perspectives as well. We met with Judge Felicia Dunn Burkes of the Gulfport Municipal County Courthouse and the Gulfport District Attorney, Cono Carrana. The message was clear: “It is important for an Individual to know their Basic Rights. In fact, it is their duty. However, they must know to exercise them responsibly.”
In running with this theme, our group decided to follow up previous “Know Your Rights” presentations with additional information on how an individual can exercise their rights responsibly. Focusing on deference to law enforcement, we wanted to convey to the public that the fight is won in the courtroom and not on the streets. In our video, we concentrated on the right way to handle interactions with the police and provided individuals with remedial options in the form of police complaints and community involvement.
At the end of the week, we presented our video for the GURLS4Life (Growing Up Responsibly to Lady Status) organization in Moss Point, Mississippi. The presentation was a success and we received positive feedback for our efforts.
Personally, I am glad I decided to spend my spring break in the Mississippi Gulf Coast and work for the Center for Justice. As a part-time evening student at CSL, I work 40 hours at a Corporate Immigration Law Practice during the day and take 12 hours of class in the evening. In addition to this hectic schedule, I am constantly busy with extracurricular activities in the form of my personal relationships, church and exercise. In short, my life is very structured and I often have to keep my end goals in sight. Corporate Immigration work and law school classes have a beginning, middle and end. Although it can be tough sometimes, I know that if I stay focused long enough, I can push through.
This past week, I realized that problems in a community, whether it be police interaction, Katrina housing issues, or race/class struggles, can be a longer process that offers no quick fix. The Community attorneys at the Mississippi Center for Justice come to work day after day not knowing whether their time dedicated to a certain community issue will provide them with a rewarding feeling of accomplishment or a disappointing setback in their efforts to solve practical problems. After this week, I have been extremely humbled by the Mississippi Center for Justice’s persistent and dedicated work in the Gulf Coast.
I now come back to my routine schedule that honestly has provided me with a comfortable life. I intend to make time in this schedule in the future to help others in our immediate community because the feeling of accomplishment is far more rewarding than I envisioned.
PS – All of you have to watch our video! Kudos to Robert for all his work on it.